Over the course of his career, Diego Maradona won only three league titles, two domestic cups, a UEFA Cup and a World Cup. True, those two league titles were the only ones Napoli have ever won, and, true, his performance in winning that World Cup was the greatest individual performance at the tournament in the past 50 years. But still, that is a meagre haul for somebody of such extraordinary talent. But then true greatness, perhaps, cannot be measured in silverware alone. His greatness lay in the moments of transcendence he offered.
There were great goals, great dribbles, great passes. He could inspire those around him to be better players. He had exemplary close control, extraordinary balance, courage and explosive pace. But he also had something more. He suffered. His genius came at a dreadful price. And that made him somehow more relatable, more mortal; he showed the darkness could be overcome.
Maradona grew up in dreadful poverty. His father had been a ferryman moving cows on the Parana River before moving to Buenos Aires, where they lived in the Villa Fiorito, a shanty town so violent that police had to be bussed in each day. He was so malnourished that when he first went to trials, nobody could believe he was as old as he said he was. When he joined Argentinos Juniors they gave him supplements and injections to build him up. It was the start of a dangerous pattern.
Chemical enhancement became a way of life. After he moved to Barcelona in 1982, he began taking cocaine, an addiction that would overwhelm him. He never settled in Spain, despite moving his family over. To an extent, they only made it worse: his mother suffered panic attacks in an unfamiliar environment. His entourage became a problem. On the pitch, he was a victim of brutal defending; off it he suffered hepatitis. Barca had signed him for a world-record fee, and they sold him for a world-record fee – to Napoli.
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It was a startling move. Napoli had ambition, and an enormous fan base, but they had never won the Italian title. Maradona may have flopped at Barca, but he arrived to extraordinary excitement and expectation. So many people turned out in the streets, dummy cars had to be sent from the airport to distract the crowds from the real Maradona. And it wasn’t just the fans; everybody wanted a piece of Maradona, and that included the Camorra.
1986 was his peak. He scored a brilliant goal against England in the World Cup quarter-final and two almost equally stunning goals against Belgium in the semi. If he was quieter in the final, it was because he and Lothar Matthaus essentially cancelled each other out, at least until Maradona broke free in the final minutes to lay on the winning goal for Jorge Burruchaga. It was his tournament: and that’s why the official FIFA film of that World Cup is entitled “Hero”.
The following season, he inspired Napoli to the league title. But the demons were there, gnawing away at him. He helped them to the UEFA Cup in 1989 and then a second scudetto in 1990. But the mood had begun to turn. His relationship with the Camorra soured. Previously he had been protected, escaping drugs tests by means of a fake penis with a bladder he could fill with a team-mate’s urine, but in March 1991 he tested positive for cocaine.
Diego Maradona of Napoli
Image credit: Getty Images
He was banned from football, went back to Argentina, and soon found himself facing drugs charges there. His life threatened to spiral out of control. After an unsatisfactory spell at Sevilla, he joined Newell’s Old Boys. At half-time on his debut, a six-year-old performed tricks with a ball on the pitch: Lionel Messi. Maradona didn’t last long there, but his place in the national team was assured. During a 5-0 qualifying defeat to Colombia, the crowd had chanted his name and once he had agreed to come back, he could not be left out.
He trained hard, lost weight, and scored as Argentina began that tournament with a 4-0 win over Greece. After the following game, against Nigeria, he was taken for a random drugs test. Footage shows him, smiling and waving as a nurse escorts him off the pitch. He seems to have nothing to worry about. But he did. He failed the test. The news prompted public grief in Argentina like nothing since the death of Peron 20 years earlier. Argentina had called on its Messiah and he had been found wanting.
Yet such was Maradona’s hold on the Argentinian psyche that in 2009, in desperation, as another World Cup qualifying campaign began to unravel, he was appointed manager, despite only ever having won two games as a manager before. His reign was chaos. In his first 13 games in charge he called up 55 players, including the 36-year-old Martin Palermo. But it was Palermo who scored a vital last-minute goal in torrential rain against Peru as qualification was secured. The idea of Maradona, somehow, had prevailed – at least until they met Germany in the quarter-final.
In 2019, he was appointed manager of Gimnasia La Plata. In retrospect, his final year looks a bizarre farewell tour. At least when fans were still permitted, every game became a tribute. He was celebrated on every touchline; he may only have played five games for Newell’s but they built a throne for him in the technical area. Nobody has ever meant so much to Argentina as a nation.
It wasn’t just that he was a brilliant player; he was a brilliant player in a specifically Argentinian way. He embodied the pibe, the street urchin; he became the image of an ideal drawn up 50 years before he was born. And most importantly of all, it was just those qualities of skill and cleverness and cunning and imagination he demonstrated in inspiring Argentina to the World Cup. He won it for Argentina in the Argentinian way – and nobody can ever match that.